Eulogy for a grumpy cat

Poocha, a white and black female cat with touches of orange, was a fixture in our apartment complex long before we moved in.

By the time we shifted in, Poocha was a full-grown adult and a mother many times over. Due to her seniority, she had survived the occasional putsches the residents association waged to rid the apartment of excessive felines.

Over the years, Poocha’s fortunes had changed. Initially a house pet in one of the apartments, circumstances changed and she became a semi-stray. While Poocha was still fed generously and allowed in the compound and balcony, she was no longer too welcome inside the house.

It also didn’t help that Poocha was turning into a grumpy old cat. Not for her the coyness of the young felines that skulked and preened on neighbouring walls and gardens.

Poocha was turning feral. By the time we met, Poocha was an independent dowager, quick to anger. She hissed and growled when anyone tried to pick her up and cuddle her. Raised in a household of women, she was deeply suspicious of all males, young, old, canine, and human.

I’ve always loved cats. We grew up with cats in our family and I’ve seen them all — skittish kittens, coy sirens, young dandies, grouchy matrons, and kitten-killer toms.

But an apartment is no place for cats and so I don’t have one now. Which is why I befriend all cats in the neighbourhoods I stay in.

But cranky old cats are special. They are like the grandmas of my youth. Rich in life experiences, wily, strong-willed, quick to anger, and capable of great affection once you earn their trust.

Poocha took her time responding to our overtures. For weeks, she ignored my attempts at a conversation from my first floor balcony or when passing each other on the lawns and the driveway.

Then one day, she climbed the stairs and came up to our front door.

She may have been a semi-stray but her attitude was anything but. The only food she’d eat was branded cat food. She was always hungry and demanded food and milk imperiously. Then she’d pad around the house and find a place to nap. When she was refreshed, she’d leave.

This became the pattern. Our apartment was a refuge. My wife and I were the cat equivalent of the Salvation Army. Our role was to provide some food and a safe place to sleep.

In return, Poccha was just Poocha. John Keats must have had cats on his mind when he wrote “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”. Cats are beautiful creatures that stroll into our lives and enrich it effortlessly. They demand very little. When around humans, they sleep for hours on end and spend an inordinate time grooming themselves.

Occasionally, they will indulge in a bit of PDA (public display of affection) but never too much. They are fickle and unsentimental unless they want something from you at which point they’ll unleash a charm offensive. This takes the form of soft mewing, wide eyes, and soft rubs. You’ll fall for it — who wouldn’t — but you should know that you’ve been manipulated. Again.

Cats are supremely sure of their place in the scheme of things. From consorting with pharaohs in ancient Egypt to starring in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical and T S Eliot’s poems, cats have enthralled humans throughout history.

Poocha continued the tradition. In short order, she floored my wife, not a cat lover, and then commandeered our house.

Outside, she was consigned to sleeping in bushes and basements. She would come home with the dirt of the garden on her silken fur, often worse for wear after a night of defending her shrinking territory against younger and fitter cats. As age caught up with her, the toll began to tell — a bruised eye, a nick here and there, a limp, a blood stain, some loss of fur, and a pressing need to rest and sleep for ever longer periods. It was the evening of the matriarch.

In the initial years of our time together, I’d clean her up by brushing her coat and wiping her with a wet towel. She’d growl and hiss and bite and stalk off in a huff but would always return since she figured we meant no harm.

As the years went by and her strength waned, I gave up trying to clean her. She had by now switched from cat food and milk to cat food and water as her digestion weakened and had slowed down as she pottered around the house or just slept. Grooming wasn’t as important as safety and rest.

We allowed her the run of the house and only drew the line at her sleeping on the beds. Everything else was okay and she took full advantage.

Poocha has explored and slept for hours in every corner of our apartment from the top of the Godrej almirah to under the cots, from study tables to TV stands, from dining chairs to sofas, from balcony chairs to ledges, from doormats to top of filing cabinets.

As the years rolled on, we saw her transition from an aloof cat that preferred her own room to a needy one that spent much of its time in the same room with us.

We’ve spent many hours in our drawing room with my wife and I reading or watching TV and Poocha snoozing in a sofa next to us.

My daughter and her husband — cat lovers both — were ambivalent about Poocha. On the one hand, they loved everything feline. On the other hand, they were young and impatient and Poocha’s hibernation didn’t amuse them.

But she doesn’t do anything, my daughter often complained on her infrequent visits home while gently squirting water from her fingertips to wake the old cat.

For her part, Poocha made it clear that while she did in general prefer young and beautiful people over the old and wise, she took a dim view of youthful exuberance. When my son-in-law downloaded videos made specifically for cats and placed his tablet PC helpfully in front of her, the old cat was initially fooled but soon figured out that it was one more annoyance like the music that my wife and I played. When confronted with all such irritants, Poocha turned her back on us, cupped her paws over her face, and snoozed.

If music was an irritant, dance was a bit of a shock.

My wife has been a classical dancer since her schooldays and the Covid-induced lockdown was an opportunity to pick up the hobby after a while. She started online practise with a teacher and created small pieces that we recorded and uploaded on YouTube.

Poocha happened to be home for one of these recording sessions. She was as usual snoozing on the sofa and watched with dismay as my wife danced in step with the music. The resulting video, where an unsettled cat stalks to and fro across the frame deciding on whether to stay or flee is now a family hit.

Some days after that video, Poocha visited us again. She was moving very slowly, the bald patch of fur under her lip was more pronounced, and she was recovering from a loss of voice and sore throat.

Uncharacteristically, she showered affection on us by rubbing herself endlessly against us and sticking close. That day, she slept for over twelve hours and left after she was fresh and fed and reasonably fit.

We haven’t seen her since.

As the days pass, the WhatsApp groups in the apartment have been humming with enquiries about her. Poocha was part of our landscape. On the green lawns, in the gardens, on the low walls, in the driveway, on the steps, she’s been a grouchy fixture for well over a dozen years. She’s been absent before for days on end but she was younger and fitter then.

As the days stretch into weeks, hopes are receding. If Poocha returns, she will be welcomed and feted. If she has passed, I hope the end was not painful.

She is missed.

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Vijay Menon

Vijay Menon

Tell your story better | www.vijaymenon.com

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